An Alternative Approach Guide for String Teachers

Mike Lawson • String Section • August 30, 2018

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And in the beginning, there was safety in open strings. In whatever activity you prefer, use a progression in which the student can play an open string when they panic or don’t know what to do. They will not be as discouraged.

The First Activity

First you will play consecutive held notes on the open G & D (or C & G) strings. In measured time, the student will play a two octave G Major scale up and down along with the pulse your bow changes give them. Next, allow the student to mix up the rhythms of the scale while pitches remain in consecutive order. Overall, this part usually works best if you give them a measure for placing the rhythms of each pitch. The following step is to instruct them on how to effectively add the variable of using the most space available to them (first position is often more difficult to manage – without being able to totally rely on intervallic motion, one must consider keys and scales). The instructions are straightforward; jump around within the octaves you know, on all four strings, using varied rhythms, note values, stylistic bow decisions, and attending to the endings or beginnings of the sound (while still using diatonic pitches of the G Major scale, and with you making what you will with the drones. Sometimes I start to imitate or compliment what the student is trying out. It is great for listening and playing intimate counterpoint on the fly.

Making a Melody

If you have a student who struggles to put together melodic content, I would suggest using the included Matrix to help establish a pattern to fit notes into. Check to see if the student can sing a melody they already know. As in traditional teaching, be aware of the ability of your student to discern make the ascending notes. Try to move communicatively with your body while you are playing, while you are at rest. When you are the single artist of your instrument (not playing the work of another or being given instructions on how to fill in), movement and posture is a very defining part of your performance.

Opposites Attract

Try letting the student experiment with how to execute and create contrasts with just one note or a single phrase that has no other context yet. Be an example of what you are asking for with your body and voice. Sometimes this is the most receptive situation to let your silly side show with no regard to consequence them give all the drama they can to making obvious their intentions.

Once they can control the assigned extremes, address the tempo of the melodic changes (not the same as playing fast or slow) and be sure to remind them that the speed of the bow arm is not the same speed as the note or the song!

Task them with mixing up long notes with short notes (or slow and fast); not to play one or the other for too many turns of the progression or song, unless you are playing a backdrop of chords along with the other instruments and the goal is for balanced supporting chords.

Another thing to address is the many different uses of bowing techniques that keep the part interesting. There are so many things to get into. Knowing when to change up your approach. When to play melody and when to support the other musicians. If you think it is obvious, explain it anyway (example: if a vocalist is the main focus and is actively singing, don’t make your part very busy or take the attention away from the vocalist; play your moving notes between verses or use harmonies that keep the notes changing with the vocal melody).

Practical Interval Familiarity

It is standard to assume that the student needs to be actively knowing scales, diatonic pitches in relation to keys, and where to place non-chord-tones. This is to some extent necessary to study for communication between fellow musicians, but it is more important to possess a keen sense of voice leading and cord expectations for the progression. It is about anticipation of the next note and how it will work with the chord. Something fairly specific to our instruments is a very strong knowledge of the 5th, the 4th, the third’s: how they relate to each other and where you place your fingers for those intervallic relationships in position; knowing where to place your fingers sequentially for a strong melodic line or functional bassline. For us, V is always a good place to start for intervallic security. It sometimes will help a student feel less inadequate to know that it is an honest truth: if you can sing along with songs on the radio: you will be good at “playing in.”


Make decisions based on your studio and what gear it is capable of supporting. The thing I most appreciate is the cable which allows me to plug anything with a headphone jack out into 1/4” input. I can usually carry a small practice amp without too much trouble. In general, it is very useful to have the capabilities of a true speaker. Often it makes playing along with media possible; you will need adequate control over volume and sound. Using a metronome through amplification is also very useful, especially for beginners who are struggling with the singular skill of metronome accuracy.

I also recommend using a device that can capture sound of both the student and the provided audio they are working with. Since video has become the new trend, an old phone no longer providing cell service can function as camera and recording device; add a $10 adjustable phone tripod, and you have almost limitless ways to implement the healthy use of self-evaluation and feedback as a tool for improvement.

Suggested Programs or Apps

Chordbot is by far the most useful tool in all of this. It is what I use to create my backing tracks. Amazingly customizable and file friendly, it is perfect for use in and out of lessons. J4T is a useful and fairly cheap app perfect for someone who owns a decent cell phone and does not have enough experience to need a full studio setup. It can import, mix, add filters, and record in a four-track capacity (the perfect track number for those starting out).

Sing & Play

This allows you to record yourself playing with your backing tracks and provides very nice results with very little required by the user.


If you look in the library of resources in the Finale program, you can find an entire course on jazz improvisation techniques that have both worksheets and audio tracks exportable as pdf files and wav files. They are ordered for various types of instruments. Once you start looking around in that reservoir, no doubt you will get lost in the many useful materials!

Common Corrections

Though still very young, there are some common issues that I have found needing attention (just like the squeeze and waiter hand). Often when students start out, their understanding or lack thereof of high and low finger placement (mostly twos and sometimes threes) is exposed. Probably when the chords of “F” or “C” are first introduced and used (watch as most students go right into those high 2s).

The issue of intonation is no different than what is already on the table. Happily, the solution to fixing bad intonation is going to be what is already working for you as a teacher. When they really begin playing regularly with recording gear, that is when the student will quickly realize on their own that accurate intonation is paramount -so is aural recognition of the interval (sing it silently and then play the note, aiming for the same pitch.)

When working on this, the simplest line to the skill is direct. Request a scale to explain that when that scale’s note is in a progression (not hard to visually demonstrate), any note used for that scale can work with your part. Then request a random note in the scale, on any octave they play. They must give me the proper finger to use on the proper string with the proper distance from adjacent fingers before we consider it a win.

Most students have a comfort zone or range and requiring them to know the answer in more than one octave is a good step in the direction of having fearless playing on all four strings.

Regarding Charts

Sometimes reading a chart is easier; it often is not. It will depend on the key and the amount of information the other band members need help remembering while performing (or if playing with a hired backup band/orchestra). Often when playing in with skill and nuance will boil down to the ease at which one recognizes voice leading, can anticipate what will come next.

Student Response/Feedback

The thing that felt hardest to accomplish is probably knowing how to use the soundboard because there are so many techniques and buttons and knobs that you can touch and play with that there’s no way you can get it done in one 30-minute class or even an hour lesson.

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